Friday, April 6, 2012

What Was My Worst Easter Ever?

Honestly, any holiday can go horribly wrong.

I point to the "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" as a prime example.

I'm probably not the only person to have had a "loved one" pass away on Christmas. In my case, it was my great great Aunt Ann. She was my great Grandmother's twin sister. It wasn't unexpected. She had been in the nursing home for some time.

To my grandmother's credit, she spared my family the news until the day after Christmas.

Still, it put a damper on the holiday season.

Then there was that one Easter. No matter how bad other holidays have been since, they will always come up short of THAT Easter weekend.

Maybe "bad" isn't such a good adjective here.

It wasn't ALL that bad.

It was just........different.

It all started off on Ash Wednesday. We all got off to a strong start. We all donned our church clothes and walked over to the Catholic Church. It was only a couple blocks, and besides, it was a beautiful morning. We went to the morning Mass, got palm ashes placed on our foreheads, and headed home to spend a rare school day away from classes.

Dad decided to go into work late that morning. He much preferred the peace and quiet of the sprawling duPont  factory to the "peace and quiet" of five rambunctious boys. Since it was such a nice day out, Mom encouraged us to get out and play. With us out from under foot she could get important things done like tons of laundry, vacuuming, and planning dinner.

It was sometime during that day Mom, while talking to one of her friends on the phone, heard about something that would set that Easter apart from all others.

Of course, we were oblivious to it at the time.

It didn't even seem unusual when we heard Mom and Dad talking in hushed tones after Dad walked in the door late in the day.

Hushed tones weren't unusual between them. After all, like my oldest brother remarked, "Every time they start whispering, I always end up with another darn brother.".

Being the only one in the house with a bedroom to myself, I started to get nervous. I had kind of become used to the solitude.

Dinner came and went as did the days of Lent. We soon forgot about Mom and Dad whispering and there was no talk of me moving my bedroom furniture. Life had pretty much returned to normal.

Then the Saturday prior to Easter weekend came. Mom and Dad got us all up at the same time and told us to get dressed.

We all thought we were going to make a surprise visit to one of our sets of grandparents or something good like that.

It was even better.

Upon our arrival in the living room for pre-departure inspection, my Dad announces, "Boys, you're all going with Mom and I to Delaware this morning. We have a surprise for you.".

Nobody loves surprises more than children and we were no exceptions.

We piled into our beloved Chevrolet Impala station wagon and headed out.

We all felt the excitement in the air.

My younger brother asked, "Are we going to see Uncle Bob and Aunt Lil?"

"No.", my Dad tersely replied.

I asked, "Are we going to see Aunt Betty and Uncle Rodman?".

Dad, still terse as ever, "NO!".

My older brother asked, "Are we going shopping?"

"I TOLD you guys, it's a SURPRISE!!!!!!", was all he could say while gritting his teeth.

We tried to prevail upon Mom for an answer, but none was forthcoming.

Finally we settled in and accepted our fate.

Unfortunately, we had gotten on Dad's last nerve. Even idle child chatter was rubbing him the wrong way by this time.

He turned and looked at Mom and asked, "Betty, where did you say the orphanage is?"

That shut us up until we got to where we were really going.

It seems, in talking with one of her friends on Ash Wednesday, Mom had found out about this new Chocolatier. She had found out that for Easter they would be making religious figures from chocolate. After discussing it over with Dad, they thought it would be a good idea to have some Bible based chocolate figures in our Easter baskets.

I thought to myself, "Wow!! When the Easter Bunny sees that we have these in our baskets already, he's REALLY going to load us down with goodies!!!".

See, even at an early age, I understood the TRUE meaning of Easter.

We jumped from the station wagon and ran through the front doors in a candy store.

Dad, seeing that we might be just a little too excited gave those words that always calmed us down, "Every one of you STOP!!!!!!".

Having restored order to the troops, Dad and Mom took us up to the case with all the religious themed chocolate figures.

To a man, we were all immediately inspired. We had never seen that much chocolate in one place.

Oh, and the workmanship on the figurines wasn't bad either.

My brother Gary was immediately taken by the "Last Supper".  It had to be about eight pounds worth of chocolate. The table alone had to be an additional two pounds on its own.

With a limited budget and visions of cavities racing through his head, Dad acknowledged that it was indeed an impressive piece, but nixed the idea.

"You can each pick out one figurine.", he said.

What to choose?

There was the Virgin Mary in white chocolate, a Joseph in a deep dark chocolate, all the various Apostles, and the star of the case, Jesus in any chocolate style you could think of.

Frankly, the Jesus in milk chocolate with raisins was pretty disturbing.

However we all noticed, and maybe rightfully so, the Jesus' figures were a bit larger than the others.

Children understand "value" as it applies to candy. Well, at least we seemed to.

All five of us immediately started clamoring for a Jesus each.

Dad looked at the smiling store owner and asked, "How much are they?".

The grinning man said, "Twenty one dollars each.".

Needless to say, Dad was quite taken back by the steep price. His voice went up a bit as he said, "Twenty one dollars EACH????? How did you come to THAT price for them??????"

The guy never batted an eye as he responded, "Judas.".

Before Dad could catch his breath, the good man said, "I have some smaller ones in stock. Their prices are in line with the other figurines in the case."

As the color was returning to Dad's face, we returned to scoping out the rest of the figurines. It was quite impressive. Besides the Apostles, Virgin Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, there were some of the more popular Saints. I suggested to Mom that she buy Dad a chocolate St. Christopher (then the patron Saint of travelers). She pointed out that chocolate on a warm, metal dashboard might not be a good thing.

So many good ideas get shot down by logic.

Being fairly bright kids, we decided that it might be in our best interests to each get a different figurine just to cover our Holy/Easter Bunny bases.

My oldest brother picked out a Joseph in milk chocolate.

My second brother picked out a Virgin Mary in white chocolate.

Knowing my younger brother really wanted a Jesus, I deferred and selected a John the Baptist with rice krispies.

My younger brother, grateful that I had let him have his way, selected a milk chocolate Jesus with nuts. It was at that point that my oldest brother asked Dad, "What does Jesus need nuts for?".

I stood there waiting for the bolt of lightning to take him out.

It never came, proving that God MUST have invented "comedy" at some point in the first days.

My youngest brother, being a little to young to know much about the faith randomly selected a milk chocolate guy holding a bird. Mom told him, "That's a good one. That's St. Francis of Assisi.".

My older brother whispered something to our youngest. His face lit up.

It would take four years for him to find out that St. Francis was NOT the "Patron Saint of Magicians".

Happy with our selections and with our parents obviously ready to go, we loaded back in to the car. Mom decided that it MIGHT be a good idea for her to keep all the chocolate stuff up front with her.

I don't know where "Moms" get that intuition stuff, but our Mom had it to spare.

Now besides church, there are certain traditions that take place on the week leading into Easter. We decorated the inside of the house, cleaned our Easter baskets, dyed Easter eggs, had our little white shirts, black ties, and tartan blazers clean and ready, and of course were ready for Mass on Good Friday and for Sunrise Mass on Easter Sunday.

There was but one tradition I think we all agreed we hated.

For some reason, to our Mom, for us kids Good Friday = Fish stick Friday.

I have yet to see a long rectangular fish come out of any body of water I've ever fished. To this day if I get even downwind of one, I begin to gag. Let's face it, if even ketchup can't salvage it you shouldn't be eating it. Had they served fish sticks at the Last Supper, the first crucifixion would have been the chef.

I'm just saying.

Anyway Good Friday, fish sticks, Mass, and all, came and went.

Saturday was here. To us boys, it was "Showtime"!!!!!

Mom got out the baskets. Dad went to the utility room. He brought out the plastic Easter "grass" and the bag of chocolate religious figurines. We had sort of wondered where he and Mom stashed them. The utility room was a perfect place. It was below ground level so it stayed very cool in the Spring. It also had a lock on it, thereby keeping Jesus and company very safe.

If it can be said this way, us boys handled the chocolate figurines with a great deal of reverence. During the week, Mom had told us the stories behind the figurines. While Jesus, Mary, and Joseph's stories were fairly common knowledge to us, the stories of St. Francis and St. John the Baptist were not.

We all mixed up our own colors of Easter "grass", organized our colorful dyed Easter eggs, and Mom carefully set our chocolate icons into their places of honor in our respective baskets.

There they were. All in a little row of cheap, woven baskets. An absolute powerhouse of a Holy Army right there on the dining room table, waiting for the Easter Bunny to salute.

It's no surprise that we kept finding excuses to leave the recreation room and go upstairs just to take a look at them.

However, as we ALL know, the Easter Bunny (like his close ally Santa Claus) will NOT show up if you stay awake.

Like Santa, he "flies solo".

That's just how the big Bunny rolls.

As our bedtimes came, we happily sauntered off to bed.

Just before my bedtime came up, Dad asked me to let our dog, "Rusty" in. Now "Rusty" was normally an outside dog. He had a doghouse in the backyard, and normally that's where he'd stay unless the weather was really bad. That night it was a really blustery, miserable Spring rain. I let "Rusty" in, dried him off with an old towel, and watched as he ran around the house like a banshee.

That was the main reason "Rusty" was an outside dog.

He made "excitable" look sleepy.

At that point, "Rusty" was no longer my problem. He'd eventually settle down like he always did. When he finally would fall asleep, Dad would put him in the half bath off the recreation room before him and Mom went to bed.

The last thing I remember that night was hearing my two older brothers climbing the staircase on the way to their bedroom. Living on the third level of a four level split level house pretty much lets you hear everything.

As was my wont, I woke up early. I was wide awake by 5:30 am. Not wanting to possibly catch the Easter Bunny doing his thing, I turned on my desk lamp and quietly played with some of my Matchbox cars. It wasn't long before I heard my older brothers come down the stairs. I went across the hall and woke up our two youngest brothers.

As I came down the stairs I heard "Rusty" scratching at the door of the half bath. My older brothers looked at me and gave me the "You're younger than us, YOU DO IT!!!" look.

Hey, I didn't mind. "Rusty" was my pal.

I opened the door. I didn't even get a chance to turn the light on. "Rusty" came out like he was on fire.

I closed the door to the bathroom, ran to the back door, and let him out.

Promptly, I forgot all about "Rusty". Easter day was here. We'd be getting ready for Mass soon.

If I was going to find my Easter basket before church, I had to get with the guys and start the hunt.

In short order, my oldest brother found his. I must say, the Easter Bunny was VERY impressed with Kevin's selection of Joseph. There were jelly beans, coconut creme eggs, peanut butter cups, solid chocolates, and a big hollow chocolate egg with chocolate covered butter cream candies inside.

If this was a harbinger of things to come, it was going to be quite a haul.

Next, our youngest brother's basket was located. As with Joseph, the Easter Bunny was very pleased to see his old friend, St. Francis.  The Easter Bunny left John a big chocolate bunny, a bunch of marshmallow "Peeps", Hershey's "Kisses", butter cream candies, coconut cream eggs, and a mound of spicy jelly beans.

Two for five and thing just kept getting better.

By this time, the five of us running around like the Marx Brothers had awakened Mom and Dad.

Dad informed us that we had ten minutes to keep looking and then it would be time to get ready for church.

With about two minutes to go, my older brother found his basket. It was obvious that we had scored big points with the Easter Bunny.  Bruce had a very narrow list of likes when it came to food, candy being no exception. He had the biggest, prettiest chocolate covered butter cream egg, spicy jelly beans, and Hershey's "Kisses". Not a big selection, but the sheer volume was insane.

As much as my younger brother and I wanted to keep looking for our baskets, it was time to get dressed for Mass. The bad thing about being an excited kid who hasn't found his Easter basket yet is that it was a High Mass. That means longer, more ornate, and the burning of incense.

What else could a distracted, antsy kid ask for?

How about a priest who is a bad "time manager"?

Bless his heart, Father Quinlan had a habit of running long on a normal Mass. That morning we should have changed his name to "Father Hoagie". The man was on a roll.

Just about the time we thought "Sunrise Mass" was going to end up as "Sunset Mass", one of the other priests came in the side door that opened abeam the altar. He quietly got Father Quinlan's attention. That put the good Father back on track. Within 30 minutes we got those words that make Catholics everywhere exhale and make them mindlessly reach for their car keys:

"The Mass is ended, go in peace."

We all walked home, Gary and I leading the way. We were each still without our baskets. We knew that even with Mom and Dad both cooking breakfast, we had a good bit of time before it would be ready.

We had a plan.

We knew we couldn't count on much help from our other three brothers. Not because they weren't good brothers. They were then and that never changed. However, it had already been a long morning, they had their baskets, and it was time for the "Three Stooges" to come on one of the local UHF channels.

Gary and I would team up, and not part company until we found both baskets.

After we arrived home, we changed into our regular street clothes and got to work.

A bonus for us not having found our baskets was that one of the older guys would have to feed and water "Rusty".

We searched high and low. Bedroom to bedroom. Closet to closet. Level by level. We even checked in the full bathroom figuring maybe the Easter Bunny left them in the vanity.

No such luck.

Just as we were about to give up, our oldest brother called out from downstairs.

Our baskets had been found.

What came next became the "Easter Miracle".

We flew down the stairs. I think we covered both flights of stairs in about two steps each.

Gary got ahead of me and went in the bathroom first.

That's when he yelled, "SOMEONE STOLE JESUS!!!!!!!!!!!!".

Sadly, he wasn't wrong.

Where Jesus had once stood, there was nothing but mashed down Easter "grass". The Easter Bunny had left Gary a big chocolate coconut cream egg, but it was laying on the floor in front of the basket.

By this time, Mom and Dad had arrived on the scene.

I can tell you that they were as perplexed as the rest of us. At first, they thought one of us was pulling a trick on Gary. I had an alibi. I was with Gary when Jesus was declared "missing". John was too young to come up with such a devious joke. Bruce was upstairs changing.

By process of elimination, Kevin fell into the "Suspect" column. However, one thing about Kevin both then and now, he's a very honest guy. In a serious situation, if he says he's "innocent", he's innocent. An honest man, through and through.

Mom and Dad both knew that.

Bruce came down and saw what was going on. It took a second, but he had a theory.

"Maybe Jesus pushed the coconut cream egg out of the way and ascended into Heaven."

I'm not sure who busted up first, but I think it was a four way tie between Mom, Dad, Kevin, and Bruce.

I was thinking, "Wow, it's a chocolate miracle.".

Dad, regaining his composure said, "There has to be something to it more than that!".

Gary left the bathroom, very distraught. Mom picked up his basket from the near side of the vanity. I went in to see the scene.

That's when I found MY basket on the far side of the vanity.

It was my turn to to yell.


Dad came walking back.

"What??????????", he said almost angry.

I reached down, picked up my basket and sure enough, there was St. John the Baptist laying there with nothing above the collar.

Now Dad was SURE there was some shenanigans going on among the brothers.

All I knew was that Jesus was missing and he might have taken a chunk of St. John with him.

The mystery would have continued except for one thing.

In the midst of all the excitement, Bruce had forgotten to do what Dad told him to do. That was to go out back and feed and water "Rusty".

Dad, obviously confused and more than aggravated, reminded Bruce to go out and take care of the dog. Bruce grabbed the bag of dog food and headed for the backyard. He came back in quickly and yelled for Dad to come out back.

Like Dad really needed ONE more thing to go wrong on Easter morning.

Out he went.

He came back in quickly, picked up St. John, and took him to the trashcan outside.

That was the last I'd see of St. John.

As for milk chocolate Jesus with nuts, his disposal was even less kind.

It seems "Rusty" liked chocolate, but it didn't like him.

Maybe it was divine intervention.

Most likely it was just nature.

A few weeks of Spring storms washed away the poorly digested remains of milk chocolate Jesus with nuts, St. John the Baptist's head, and "Rusty's" sins.

Were it only that easy for the rest of us.

With one of the great mysteries of life solved, we all went to the dining room to enjoy breakfast.

Okay, so we were down a couple of Martyrs, but in the big scheme of things it was really not that big of a deal. There was plenty of candy to go around and besides, like any large family we had no issues in sharing with each other.

You know, that probably would have been enough excitement for one day for any normal family.

Unfortunately, we weren't normal.

Okay, compared to us we were normal.

Sort of.

After breakfast, we had the usual assembly line of dish washing/dish drying. At that time, with us boys all being still fairly young and short, Mom would wash the dishes, two of us would "volunteer" to dry them (as selected to "volunteer" by Mom and Dad), and Dad would put them away. Seeing as how we would be using them again for a big Easter dinner, Dad "volunteered" two more of us to place the freshly dried dishes and silverware back on the dining room table.

I'm sure Dad would have loved to take care of that chore, but he was busy making sure the Easter ham was doing well outside. It would be the only time Dad ever cooked a whole ham on the grill over low coals. Not because he had an inspiration that a slow cooked ham over charcoal might be a good idea, it was mostly due to Mom needing the oven for a special Easter "project".

It seems Mom had run across a really neat bread mold just in time for the holiday season. Add freshly baked bread to the number of baked side dishes Mom had planned and Dad and his ham were pretty much on their own. Due to Mom's enthusiasm, even boiling the ham on the stove top was out of the question.

Everything was going smoothly right up to the moment until Mom sprung the new bread pan on Dad and us boys.

Something has to be a "first" and something has to be a "last". In rare moments, one thing can be both simultaneously.

The "Jesus On The Cross" bread pan was one of the rarest of rare moments.

We all looked at it in awe, shock, and amazement.

Dad muttered something. I'm pretty sure that's why he led the charge to "confession" the next Saturday.

However, today WAS Easter. He was going to support Mom as best he could regardless.

Us boys decided that maybe standing near the kitchen might not be such a good idea. Lightning can hit anywhere and the kitchen seemed to be the next likely place. I can't speak for my brothers, but I know i said a quick prayer for the kitchen's and Mom's safety. The five of us boys scattered out and went about the business of being kids.

In the meantime, Mom made the dough and as per the bread mold instructions, placed the dough into the mold.

Now anyone who has made a yeast dough knows that you have to punch down the dough after the initial yeast reaction occurs. Mom had placed the "Jesus On The Cross" bread mold (filled with a nice smooth yeast dough) on the dining room table. After about an hour, she asked Dad to go check on the dough to see if it was time to punch it down.

Maybe Dad was having a "funny moment", maybe he had just suffered a small stroke, or just maybe it was the second "Bloody Mary" he had with him as he came in from the slowly cooking ham on the grill. I never got around to asking him so I'll never know. Mom asked Dad how the dough in the "Jesus On The Cross" bread pan looked.

We all heard Dad give a poorly restrained smirk.

He turned back towards the kitchen where Mom was neck deep in side dishes and needed nothing else but a simple answer.

Thanks to vodka, she got one.

"Betty", he said loudly, "Christ has risen!".

Mom, biting her tongue so as not to egg Dad on, said in a very sharp and mildly perturbed way, "Well, could you PLEASE punch the dough down?".

I'm not sure what other's definition of "punch down the dough" is, but Dad flattened the heck out of the dough in the "Jesus On The Cross" bread pan.

I know it looked pretty darn flat in there. I was standing next to Dad when he did it.

Mom asked me from the kitchen, "Michael, how does it look?".

I told her it looked pretty flat.

Before Mom could say anything else, Dad chimed in, "Don't worry. Christ will rise again.".

It was at that moment I tied my then all time record for making "the Sign of the Cross".

That would be the last time Dad was allowed to help Mom with bread making.

The rest of the early afternoon was surprisingly quiet.

In fact, it wasn't until dinner that fate would be tempted again.

Now I will say this about my parents. They were both excellent cooks. Dad brought the slow cooked ham to the table. He had basted it with his mustard based BBQ sauce. The BBQ sauce had copious amounts of brown sugar and red wine vinegar in it. The ham looked like it just came off a magazine cover. Mom's side dishes were equally as appealing. Green beans, candied yams with a marshmallow topping, baked macaroni and cheese, creamed peas, glazed carrots, and of course the "Jesus On The Cross" bread still in the bread pan.

We all held our breath as Mom picked up the "Jesus On The Cross" bread pan, gently leaned it against the bread plate, and inverted it.

It was a 50/50 shot that it was going to stick. Not that it was a poorly made pan, that was just Mom's baking average.

She tapped the bottom of the pan with a butter knife and slowly lifted the pan away from the bread plate.

She breathed a sigh of relief as the bread broke free. There, for one and all of us to have was a fine rendition of hot Cross Jesus.

Not I'm sure some of you are thinking to yourselves, "My God, how could this day get any more weird?"

Well that would be as we started to pass things around the dinner table.

As in any large gathering at any large table, not everything is nearby to your dinner plate. Such was the situation at our holiday gatherings, this one not being an exception.

The ham slices came around first. I must say again that this was one of Dad's masterpieces. The outside was crispy with a tangy flavor and the ham itself was "melt in your mouth" cooked.

Next, the mashed potatoes and candied yams made the rounds. With those two served at the same table it is a matter of "one or the other or BOTH!!!!" with most of us opting for both.

After that it became a matter of passing the mac and cheese and veggies around to whoever wanted it next. Passing across the table was never frowned upon, it was just a matter of who asked for whatever it was next.

Finally it was time to pass the bread.

Our yeasty Saviour was closest to me.

I picked up the Holy Serving Platter.

Then, I had an idea.

It was as bad as it was funny.

When confronted by temptation as such, one must follow their conscience.

Unfortunately, I had yet to embrace that concept at the tender age of 7.

I knew that none of us would or could eat until after we said grace.

I also knew that my maternal grandmother always said, "No matter what you say, if you end it with the word "Amen", it counts as a prayer.".

Add in a dash of  "call and response" Catholic prayers and my plan was complete.

My brother Bruce asked me to pass the bread.

I slowly held out the plate bearing our Lord and savory Saviour and uttered those words that nobody else, to my knowledge had thought of.

As the plate reached my arm's length, Bruce was leaning over reaching to take it from me.

To his and the rest of the family's surprise I said, "The body of Christ.".

Being good Catholics, and out of sheer instinct the rest of the family (my parents included) all said, "Amen" simultaneously.

Before Mom and Dad could react, Bruce pointed out that we had all said "Amen" and unless Mom Mom was a fibber, that constituted a prayer.

I think that still stands as a family record for the shortest prayer at dinner.

Now I have just two more things to tell all y'all.

I was ill on 1 April.

April Fool's (belated) and Happy Easter to one and all.

Until the next time, all y'all take care of yourselves.

Air Traffic Mike, ret.

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